In order to understand what makes an argument fallacious, or to understand even what a fallacy is, one must first understand what an argument is. This post serves the purpose of providing a very brief overview and is in no way a comprehensive study.
What is an argument?
An argument consists of propositions, also called statements, which can be true or false. Propositions are further classified as premises and conclusions of arguments.
An argument will have one or more premises and one conclusion. A premise is a statement (a sentence that is either true or false) that is offered in support of the claim being made, which is the conclusion (which is also a sentence that is either true or false). Think of a premise as the reason (or evidence) why the conclusion should be accepted.
There are two traditional types of arguments: deductive and inductive.
A deductive argument is an argument such that the premises provide (or appear to provide) complete support for the conclusion. It guarantees the conclusion to be true if the premises are true.
An inductive argument is an argument such that the premises provide (or appear to provide) some degree of support (but less than complete support) for the conclusion. It provides a conclusion that is most probable to be true if the premises are true.
A sound deductive argument is usually stronger than an inductive argument. However, depending upon the topic or claim, it may not be possible to argue deductively.
Here is an example of a deductive argument:
All cats are mammals (premise 1)
All mammals are animals (premise 2)
Therefore, all cats are animals (conclusion).
Here is an example of an inductive argument:
In San Diego, CA, it has rained less than 2.5″ every December in recorded history.
Therefore, it will rain less than 2.5″ this coming December in San Diego.
As you can see, as an inductive argument, it is reasonable, but it is not absolute. It isn’t a “sure thing”, whereas the deductive argument about cats above, will always be 100% true.
It should be noted that there are many parts of a statement, and there are many attributes of an argument. These will be covered in a more detailed section on logic in the future.
What is a fallacy?
A fallacy is, very generally, an error in reasoning. This differs from a factual error, which is simply being wrong about the facts. It is a mistake in the way that the final conclusion of the argument, or any intermediate conclusions, are logically related to their supporting premises.
Fallacies often concern themselves with the form of an argument (but not always). An argument may appear to be valid and true, but may be technically “out of form”, or illogical. Hence, fallacious. There are many fallacies (or ways that an argument may be fallacious), we’ll provide an exhaustive list of fallacies and examples (as well as source material) on the new site for reference.
A brief discussion about the “Appeal to authority” (Ad Verecundiam)…
First off, the appeal to authority, is not the same as the fallacy of appealing to authority. There are indeed legitimate instances where appealing to the authority of experts are necessary and valid. However, it becomes a fallacy when certain criteria are not met that would ordinarily legitimize it.
First, let’s explain why this is a fallacy (when it is not legitimized).
Quite simply, it doesn’t address the argument itself and instead it insists the argument must be true because so-and-so said it was. Truth isn’t correspondent to who claims X to be true, truth is correspondent to reality, what actually is.
Usually, this fallacy occurs because so-and-so is not an expert (or authority on the subject) in the area they make the claim. An example would be an actor in a commercial claiming that X brand of medicine is the best for you.
However, this can also be fallacious even if the expert is cited and is speaking from his field of expertise. What about the experts who may not agree that it is true? Einstein and Steven Hawking were/are both physicists, experts in their field. Yet they disagree on a few important issues in physics. If we must accept X is true in physics because Einstein the expert said it was, then we must accept X is false by Hawking. This obviously, can lead to problems. Suggesting X is true in this case, is fallacious. One can support their argument for X by citing Einstein, but to hinge it all upon “X is true because Einstein says so.” is in fact, a commission of this fallacy. Hawking, also an expert, would disagree with X.
Also, up until the 15th or 16th centuries, it was widely held by “authorities” that the Earth was flat. If one were to cite an authority then and argue that the Earth was flat because said authority said it was, this would not make the Earth flat. Claiming so-and-so said so, does not make the claim true. Many experts can be wrong. There must be some methodology to determine the legitimacy of the appeal when this happens…and there just so happens to be one. See the list below.
Also, it should be noted that there are sub-fallacies of Ad Verecundiam. They include (but are not limited to) false authority, anonymous authority, invincible authority, authority in numbers, authority of tradition, and more.
As you can see, fallacies can be quite complicated. Let’s bring our attention to a specific sub-fallacy, that of invincible authority.
This occurs when an appeal is made to an authority as to settle the argument as final, without providing support of the argument itself. Accepting the opinions of one expert or another (while not considering the supportive arguments) will not lead us to truth. It does not tell us which expert to believe, only that an expert claimed it, thus it must be true. It ignores that other experts may disagree, or that said expert’s opinions are misrepresented or misunderstood, or that they are now obsolete (change of position), etc…
In order for the appeal to be legitimate, there is usually a set of criteria that needs to be met for it to be so. While the specific points to be met may vary slightly depending upon the logician or professor asked, generally, all agree at least to the main points of each list.
Six conditions for a legitimate argument from authority
- The authority must have competence in an area, not just glamour, prestige, rank or popularity.
- The judgement must be within the authority’s field of competence
- The authority must be interpreted correctly
- Direct evidence must be available, at least in principle
- A technique is needed to adjudicate disagreements among equally qualified authorities. The case above re: Einstein vs Hawking is an example of why this is needed.
- The authority must not be biased (this 6th point is always a subject for debate and will in fact vary as a point depending upon whom you ask).
It should be noted that even the nature of philosophy itself, as well as its applications and limitations, are highly debateable. Some philosophers and logicians may argue that a fallacy only occurs under very strict guidelines. In the above example for instance….that only false authority is the true fallacy of appealing to authority. Others will say that instead of sub-fallacies, the fallacy Ad Verecundiam is the only fallacy of its nature and includes all those that others may claim are its sub-fallacies. The point is, the facets of philosophy are always in contention. As such, to receive the best understanding of the study of philosophy, logic, fallacies, etc…continued formal education is typically the best route for proper understanding. ODN cannot claim to replace such education, only to provide a foundation for those who have absolutely no starting point. It is highly recommended that to further your understanding of advanced theories and forms of logic, that you pursue a formal education in these areas. We can only provide the basic tools for you, nothing more.